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The East Village on a Friday night: Packs of feral 19-year-olds in leggings roam the streets, and every restaurant and bar is overflowing. But on a choice corner in the middle of the action, Kurve is echoingly empty. The place is conspicuous enough—it looks like a Barbie-themed Starship Enterprise. Two tourists snap pictures at another table, but every other mod, white-plastic chair is vacant. The very pink, space-age design is by Karim Rashid, and the desserts are by Pichet Ong. The restaurant's opening was announced on all the New York food-media outlets, yet the curvaceous space remains a ghost town, and no more than three people come in—to ask the staff for directions to other restaurants. We are informed that "only" their Japanese chef is working tonight, so there is a limited menu. We order almost everything available, which amounts to an adequate eel roll and fried soft-shell crab salad, a seaweed salad, lusciously fatty toro sashimi, and a tiny filet of miso-marinated cod.
Meanwhile, Rhong-Tiam has no design to speak of, received no press buzz for its opening, and is stuck in a dowdy little strip mall set back from the street. But its vivid Bangkok-style food was slowly discovered by websites like Chowhound, and then by the Times and the New Yorker, and now all the tables are full at lunch on a Wednesday, or late dinner on a Monday. Andy Yang is the chef and co-owner of both restaurants, but their wildly different fates almost give you faith that the New York restaurant scene is a meritocracy after all.
Actually, Yang tells me, Kurve was not yet open when I went. But one can walk in the door and exchange American currency for food and drink. How is that not open?
87 Second Avenue, 212-260-8018
"We opened to see how the AC works, the sound system, test out the computers," says Yang, "But several things are not ready in terms of the food, and we're going to change our liquor program and change the kitchen equipment."
If that's the case, the restaurant should be closed—actually closed, not just closed in the owner's mind. You can't open, realize you weren't ready after all, and then decide that the opening never happened. At least the staff should explain to customers that although the lights are on and the door is open, the restaurant is not actually ready for business. Adding to the confusion, Kurve does not answer its phone. Ever.
Kurve's opening has already been delayed by about a year, so all this waffling about whether or not the place is open is bizarre and seems to make it unlikely that the place will thrive. But I'd wait a while longer and go back in September to see if Kurve has finally "opened," because I've heard there will be foie gras shumai, and if there's anything that would make me forgive and forget, it's foie gras shumai.
But at Rhong-Tiam, which Yang quietly opened last year while waiting for construction to be completed on Kurve, business is booming, solely on the strength of the Bangkok-style food.
Yang grew up in Bangkok, and he defines the city's cooking as having an exceptional balance of sweet, salty, spicy, and sour flavors—in contrast to cookery from other regions, which might place emphasis on one flavor or another. "I wouldn't say it's more sophisticated," says Yang, "but it's more detailed, with attention paid to each ingredient." And because Bangkok is a cosmopolitan city in a relatively small country, dishes from all over Thailand are eaten there and are represented on Rhong-Tiam's menu. "Pork on fire," Yang says, is the signature dish of his home city. Rhong-Tiam's version is spectacular. Small bits of pork are sautéed with lemongrass, plenty of garlic, and so many diced bird's-eye chilies that the entire concoction is dotted with their tiny, incendiary seeds. Then the pork mixture is topped with crisp fried basil and kaffir lime leaves. A bite is by turns searing, floral, citrusy, and porcine.
"Water spinach on fire" is more subdued than its porky cousin, but has a balance of complex, punchy flavors that made me understand what Yang meant when he said that Bangkok cuisine was "detailed." Bright-green, limpid water spinach is scattered with golden bits of garlic and chilies, and sits in a pool of salty black-bean sauce.
Every salad I sampled was excellent. The papaya salad (from Isaan, whose regional cuisine has recently been New York's Thai darling) is the most ordinary of the lot, although it boasts fresher, better-cooked shrimp than the usual. The catfish and green-mango salad is a weirdly masterful exercise in balance—first, the catfish is grated, then deep-fried, so that it ends up in a pile of tiny, crunchy bits, like catfish popcorn. Served in a bowl on the side, the green-mango salad is puckeringly sour and very, very hot. A bite of the two together yields crunch, slip, cool, warm, citrus, spice, and brine.
The crispy water-spinach salad works on the same principle. The water spinach is fried whole, tempura-style, so that its long green leaves are hidden inside a craggy coating. The small dish of squid salad that sides the fried spinach is dressed in lime juice and fish sauce and brightened with plenty of chilies.
"Andy's omelette"—which Yang says is a dish most Bangkok families eat everyday—is a bubbly fried orb of egg, bean-thread noodles, and diced shrimp. It's served with a Sriracha-like garlicky hot sauce on the side. (Sriracha originated in the city of the same name, which is close to Bangkok.) The Southern-style chicken is like a toned-down laab, a coarse grind of chicken, stained red with spice and served with sticky rice. But the chicken was slightly dry and lacked the flavorful complexity of the other dishes.
Rhong-Tiam pounds its own curry pastes and extracts its own coconut milk, and all the attention to detail manifests itself in flavors that are vibrant and distinct. Still, to get the good stuff, you must order with some thought. There are several items to avoid if you don't want the mediocre, undifferentiated New York–Thai experience—namely, the lunch specials are ordinary in the extreme. But the regular menu is available during lunch; you just have to ask for it. Also, the "Southeast Asian Buffalo wings" and "Thai nachos" should be skipped. And you're in a Thai restaurant, so you know better than to order teriyaki, right?
The second time I went to Rhong-Tiam, I noticed Kurve's distinctively futuristic logo had been added to the dessert menu and that Pichet Ong's desserts were listed there, alongside Rhong-Tiam's simple mango and sticky rice and pumpkin custard. We tried the carrot cake with salted almonds, Chantilly cream, and bits of diced pineapple, and it was wonderful. Yang says Ong's desserts will be on Rhong-Tiam's menu only until Kurve "opens." If I were a betting girl, I'd put my money on Rhong-Tiam and hope Ong's imaginative sweets stay there for good.